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‘If anyone has broken contracts, it’s the BLM’: Boise forum draws Utah ranchers upset with feds

First Published      Last Updated Apr 08 2016 07:57 pm

Public lands » Ranchers are told they have rights to BLM allotments, but opponents are heard at rally and march through downtown Boise.

Boise • The allotments Western ranchers use are not really public land, but rather grazing reserves to which ranchers hold a "property right" that the federal government has no authority to infringe.

Although some experts dispute such claims, that was the lesson taught Saturday at a property rights forum in Idaho organized by Utah activists sympathetic to the militants who have occupied an Oregon wildlife refuge for most of January.

"You own the forage. There's even cases where they said ranchers are entitled to compensation for the timber. This isn't something I made up. Everything in my research is based exactly on what the laws say," keynote speaker Angus McIntosh told about 60 people gathered at the Boise Centre in the heart of Idaho's capital city.

McIntosh is an adjunct professor of agriculture at Texas A&M University, where he taught an online course last year.

The Boise event, titled Storm Over Rangelands and organized by the Ogden-based National Federal Lands Conference, is a follow-up to a gathering last week in Cedar City, where several Utah ranchers agreed to disavow their contracts with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The events address "a long trail of abuses" directed at productive land users by these agencies, according to organizer Todd Macfarlane, a Kanosh lawyer active in land-use controversies.

Supporters of Western conservation groups staged a counterprotest on the steps of the Idaho Capitol and then marched through downtown to the conference venue. About 75 protesters held signs and chanted "Keep public lands in public hands," and later sang "This Land Is Your Land," as a conference attendee entered their circle and heckled.

"We need to push back against these efforts to encourage people to break the law," said Katie Fite of Wildlands Defense, an Idaho-based conservation group. Ranchers' "permits don't have many controls, but what they do have must be followed. You can triple the number of cows if you don't think there are controls. You harm the land and the public good. It is the epitome of greed and selfishness."

The National Federal Lands Conference forums aim to provide "tools" that would enable ranchers to assert their rights in the face of federal obstruction to the lands' resources, according to Macfarlane. One tool is billed as a "notice of consent of withdrawal," a pledge ranchers are being asked to send the federal government renouncing the contracts governing their use of the land.

Some of the ranchers at Saturday's meeting seemed hesitant to take that step, which could expose them to legal headaches and possible eviction from their allotments.

Harney County rancher Charmaign Edwards agrees her family owns the grass on their massive BLM allotment and they can be trusted to manage the resource sustainably without federal interference.

"It's your livelihood. You have to take care of it," said Edwards, whose family acquired the ranch near Fields, Ore., in 1976. They used to run 650 head on the Pebble Lone Mountain allotment, but the BLM cut stocking levels by 14 percent in the 1980s and they have never been restored.

She and her husband, Nolan, do not oppose paying grazing fees, but they prefer being regulated by state and local authorities, rather than the feds, she said.

"They don't want us there. Their objective is to get us off the land. The public has to understand that the federal government is not their friend and ranchers are not their enemy. If we are off there, they are off there, too," Edwards said.

Before his Tuesday arrest, Oregon standoff leader Ammon Bundy had planned to speak at the Idaho forum. Speakers who made the trip included Nevada rancher Cliff Gardner and rancher Tim Smith, who heads the Harney County Committee of Safety, dedicated to restoring resource development in the county where the Malheur National Wildlife occupation unfolded.

Gardner said federal agencies routinely ignore information he has brought them. In the meantime, officials gave deference to conservation groups' data that exaggerated grazing impacts, and ranchers had no "due process" to challenge it.

"We ought to be screaming from the rooftops. We can't live with this federal jurisdiction. Not only is there no way to get justice in federal courts, but they are setting precedents that are leaking down to lower courts," Gardner said. "They are spreading disinformation with our money. We are too busy working to counter their disinformation."

Headliner McIntosh worked for the Forest Service and other federal agencies for 16 years. He quit federal employment in 1998 after becoming sick of agencies' hypocritical land management practices that violate ranchers' rights, according to event organizer Jon Pratt.

"It's not grazing privileges. It's rights. He is showing these are preemptive rights. You can't take away a right. By policy, what BLM and the Forest Service have done in last 40 years has gone against the law. If anyone has broken contracts it's the BLM and Forest Service," said Pratt, a Millard County resident involved with the livestock industry.

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